The background music was a mixture of folk and rock. Students from local high schools and universities performed what appeared to be a cross between Ilocano cultural dances and metropolitan cheerdance routines.
They started slowly, bending their torsos to mimic farmers during the rice-planting season in Batac, Ilocos Norte. They call this, panag-raep iti pagay or literally, “planting of rice.” The music paced up and the dancers quickly formed a circle, fanning an invisible fire with giant anahaw leaves. They were pretending to cook a local delicacy. In their vernacular they call the dance move panagluto (cooking).
Then, the performers descended from the stage one by one, handing out purse-shaped goodies to the audience. It was time for the most awaited part—pananngan (eating)—where everyone had their share of the famed Ilocano Empanada.
Now on its second year, the dances and songs of Batac’s Empanada Festival highlight the preparation of the Filipino version of the Mexican tacos.
The late Ferdinand Marcos’ hometown reinvented its image in 2007 after becoming the second city of the province. Batac now calls itself the home of the original Ilocano
Empanada, ending the claim of its biggest rival, Vigan City in Ilocos Sur.
The uniqueness of the Empanada Festival lies in the dances, songs and activities inspired by the half-moon, orange-colored snack. Its influence is seen in the color, shape and overall feel of the costumes, the decorations and the posters of the festival. More than being a yearly celebration, however, Batac’s Empanada, is first and foremost, a local delicacy.
In Batac City, there is only one original Empanada. Tourists and locals flock to one of the riverbank stalls near the Imelda Cultural Center where they find Manang Glory’s Empanadahan—claimed to be the first successful Empanada business in Batac owned by the aging Glory Cocson.
Manang Glory, 60, was in her mid-20s when she decided to start a small food stall in Batac’s town plaza. Forty years after, her empanadahan became a part of the locals’ daily activities, not to mention, their diet.
“Madik nga amu man. Basta minanak laengen diay panagluto ti Emapanada (I don’t remember. All I know is I inherited the empanada recipe and cooking style),” Manang Glory explained how she came up with her Empanada business.
Students from nearby schools, government and office workers enjoyed their afternoon merienda in Manang Glory’s stall. Tricycle drivers even decided to transfer their terminal near the empanadahan for easier access to their favorite snack.
In fact, even if giant fast-food chains like Jollibee and Chowking had been set up just a few meters from the riverside empanadahan, Manang Glory said they never felt a decline in order or customer. On the average, they earn around 10,000 pesos daily.
If one asks Manang Glory’s customers why they keep coming back, they usually give the same answer. The Empanada is worth it. It is naimas (delicious) and nalaka (affordable).
The success of Manang Glory’s business led to the opening of her daughter’s own empanadahan stall. Glomalyn Rigonon put up Glomy’s Empanada but still adopted her mother’s recipe. Instead of being business rivals, the mother-and-daughter tandem became partners. What used to be solely Glory’s is now Glory and Glomy’s Empanada.
Customers can watch as their orders are cooked by the experts. The preparation is simple and the ingredients are easily found in the market. The empanada has two main parts—the crust and the filling.
Batac’s Empanada has a thicker and brighter crust compared to Vigan’s. The dough is made of rice or corn flour, achuete for the natural orange food coloring, salt and oil. It is kneaded as thinly as possible with banana leaves or wax paper to achieve the crisp texture after frying.
Several ingredients are mixed to make the filling. In Batac, they use Laoag’s longanisa (sausage), grated green papaya, pre-boiled mongo sprouts or beans, pepper, salt and egg. These are stuffed in the crust and deep-fried in a giant frying pan.
In Manang Glory’s stall, they offer several varieties of the empanada like the special and double special, special egg-less or mongo-less, ordinary egg-less, double egg, and double-double. The difference basically lies in the quantity of the ingredients stuffed in the crust.
To distinguish one variation from the other, Manang Glory’s cooks assigned specific folds for the crusts. The double-double for example has double folds while the ordinary has a smooth edge without folds.
The Empanada is served either on a plate or in a brown paper bag for take-out. The locals said the best way to eat their empanada is to munch it with sukang Iloko or the Ilocano vinegar. One order is big enough to take the place of a full rice meal.
The magic of Batac’s empanada is in its distinctiveness. “It is the distinctive that attract human attention and interest anywhere,” Prof. Felipe de Leon writes in his article, “Culturally-rooted definition of attractions.”
Of the seven facets of Cultural Worth, a Tourism concept that determines the attractiveness of a place, a product or a service, Batac’s Empanada embodied four—originality, indigenousness, authenticity and magnitude.
The product is the first of its kind in that part of the country. It is also native to the place, having been developed and transformed by the locals to suit their taste and culture. Lastly, because it has become part of their diet and daily activities, it has given them a sense of identity, a “soul.”
Allan Bermudez, owner and tour guide of the Arts and Nature Tour added that food is always a destination because Filipinos really love eating.
“We will try everything—exotic, local, foreign. We are adventurous when it comes to food,” he said.
It is no wonder why Batac’s Empanada, the Ilocos bagnet or desiccated pork, sinanglao or the Ilocano beef stew have been included in the itinerary of many Ilocos Tourism packages.
Other than the cultural aspect, the success story of Glory’s Empanada can be traced to the “One Town, One Product (OTOP)” marketing strategy adopted by the government in 2004.
Taking the cue from foreign tourism strategies like in Taiwan, OTOP became the Philippine’s main action plan to develop small and medium scale enterprises nationwide.
At its core, OTOP aims to showcase the best products and services of every town in the Philippines, focusing promotions and tourism development around that product or service for completion rather than competition in the local tourism industry.
Instead of towns with similar products competing for tourists, OTOP envisions a variety of distinctive tourist destinations, products and services that will fascinate local and foreign visitors, and entice them to come back for more of the local culture.
Since the inception of the OTOP strategy, seven possible areas of focus were identified for Batac—multiplier onion, goat, meat or food processing, bamboo, cotton, tobacco, and information and communication technology.
The Batac Empanada falls under food processing, and the vigorous advertising has since made it more famous than its counterpart in Vigan. Though a seeming rivalry exists between the two cities, it has in fact helped the promotion of the product. Tourists are made to decide which is better by giving them the chance to taste both empanadas. Curiously, the verdict is not unanimous.
Some find Vigan’s thin crust better while others delight in the abundance of the mongo and papaya in Batac’s empanada. Still others think both are the same.
Besides the OTOP strategy, the Department of Science and Technology’s drive to make the presentation of the local product globally competitive led to the “packaging improvement project.”
Glomy’s empanada was among those benefited by the program. Now, she packs the Empanada neatly in a box of twelve bearing her stall’s name, contact numbers and a short description of the product, including its ingredients.
To preserve the Empanada, Ate Glomy deep fries it longer than usual to make sure that the egg and longanisa get thoroughly cooked. The Empanada can last up to two days
Before Batac officially adopted it as its flagship product, the people recognized the Empanada as a local and tourist favorite. Today, it has become even more as the local government’s support made it a source of livelihood to the Ilocanos of the city. The cuisine is now part of tourism, of the city’s industry, of small-scale development and the empowerment of local entrepreneurs.
After all the presentations, the parade and speeches, queues of people waited to be served the Empanada prepared by the city’s best cooks. Though the festival lasts only a day, no one is stopping them from enjoying the Empanada year round. All they need to do is to go to the riverside empanadahan where Manang Glory and Glomy’s cooks are waiting to take their orders.